Book review: How To Think Like A Woman, by Regan Penaluna

A combination of memoir and analysis exploring the careers of four female philosophers, Regan Penaluna’s new book is a work of empathy and intelligence, writes Stuart Kelly

That the language around philosophy and the history of philosophy is problematically gendered does not seem to me to be in dispute. Male philosophers are always “making advances in the territory”, as if they were all soldiers. Female philosophers “made a significant contribution”, as if they had brought nice scones to the faculty picnic. Worse, philosophy has traditionally been relayed agonistically and antagonistically. So, Aristotle refutes Plate, Kant finds the error in Hume, Nietzsche trumps anyone who crosses his path. Recently, an interesting study was published by Benjamin Lipscombe, called The Women Are Up To Something. It analyses the work of Iris Murdoch, Mary Midgely, Elizabeth Anscombe and Philippa Foote. Part of the problem though is that they were all interested in ethics and moral philosophy. It was almost as if the snarky title, taken from a from a male academic, had the undercurrent of “leave metaphysics, epistemology, ontology and hermeneutics to the big boys and stick with worrying over domestic problems like goodness and kindness and responsibility”. There is still a glaring gap in the market for a good book on the likes of Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Julie Kristeva, let alone Simone Weil or Hannah Arendt. Maybe some male philosopher might care to think about why so many female philosophers were especially interested in morality.

Regan Penaluna’s book is a combination of memoir and analysis, as she looks at the careers of earlier female philosophers; in particular, Damaris Masham, Mary Astell, Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine Cockburn. I would hazard that only one of the four names is familiar to the average reader. They are united by concerns. How to be independent? What is obligation? Is self-sufficiency possible, necessary or desirable? Penaluna makes an excellent job of counterpointing these women’s own lives, in all their ambiguities, to their work. I was particularly taken with the manner in which empathy came to the fore (and that it was not seen as conditional on motherhood). All were traduced in various ways, which is unsurprising given the period in which they lived: this was a time when Alexander Pope, whom I admire and so did some of them, could blithely write in his poetic second moral essay, “Nothing so true as what you once let fall / ‘Most women have no Characters at all: / Matters too soft a lasting mark to bear / And best distinguish’d by black, brown or fair.’” Said the notoriously short man.

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Penaluna sets her own story in orbit with those about whom she is writing. She makes this intellectually sound when she writes that she “was exploring a psychic and intellectual geography that was taking me further from professional philosophy as I knew it and into a strange hybrid land of philosophy and personal narrative that seemed more authentic and moving than my purely scholarly work”. This hybridity is something she draws attention to in the works of her subjects, as playwrights, novelists, letter-writers, popularisers as much as philosophers. She writes one part as a kind of dialogue with a Descartes-inspired Demon that undermines her, challenges her, rebukes her and berates her. From the outset she makes clear that she experienced both overt and subtle sexism at university; she also writes with honesty about failed relationships, motherhood, desire and the undermining that can come even from well-meaning men. This context is important.

Regan Penaluna PIC: Rachel PapoRegan Penaluna PIC: Rachel Papo
Regan Penaluna PIC: Rachel Papo

There are two sections which mirror each other. One is titled “On The Prejudices Of Philosophers”, and is a litany of dismissive comments over the centuries. It is sobering to read, although part of me thought “well, were you really surprised?” and part of me was taken aback that Nietzsche is given a bit of a lads’ mag free pass – that he is ironic and not to be taken seriously – but I still wince when I read “You go to women? Do not forget the whip!” (He also was intrigued by Schopenhauer who is both a genius and a nasty piece of work when it comes to women). The counterpart is a fragmentary history of female philosophers other than the four she chooses to concentrate on in the main part of the book. It makes for quite melancholy reading, given that so many texts were not preserved, and is enlightening about non-European female thinkers. It also has the wonderful mention of Diotima, who appears as a tutor of Socrates, and whose very existence is questioned. As she observes, it would make her the only fictional character in the Platonic dialogues.

Occasionally, there are points where I felt the tone went awry. Regarding Aristotle she muses “I sometimes wonder what Aristotle was like in bed. Did gold chains hit his chest? Did he like to tongue ass?” It is not, I must confess, a question I have ever considered, and nor do I think an answer would mean much. The desire to be provocative and cock a snook is evident, but it does, to an extent, distract rather than detract from the valuable work here. But then, I am self-aware enough to know I am already a fossil. Self-awareness is the book’s governing theme, and it is conveyed with empathy and intelligence. Let there be more such books.

How To Think Like A Woman, by Regan Penaluna, Grove Press, £16.99

How To Think Like A Woman, by Regan PenalunaHow To Think Like A Woman, by Regan Penaluna
How To Think Like A Woman, by Regan Penaluna